Euro vision winners

March 20, 1998

Why do British scientists succeed in Europe? We look at careers, funding and the expatriate life. YAHOO-Molecular biologist Victoria Shingler went to Sweden for a year. That was in 1985. Michael de Laine hears about the attractions of well-funded research

The picture-postcard beauty of northern Sweden was the last thing on Victoria Shingler's mind when deciding where to do her post-doctoral work.

She had planned to stay abroad for just one year but has been at Umea University since 1985.

Shingler was born in Chertsey in 1957. She studied at the University of Leicester and did her PhD in molecular genetics at the University of Birmingham in 1984 with a thesis on the replication of plasmids. These mini-chromosomes, which are not essential for a bacterial cell, can be used as genetic tools when investigating processes in soil bacteria capable of degrading environmental pollutants in the form of aromatic compounds such as toluene and xylene.

Shingler wanted to continue this work at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, where Michael Bagdasarian was involved in developing the broad-host range of vectors for looking at processes in bacteria other than E. coli.

Bagdasarian accepted Shingler's application with the words, "By the way, I'm moving to the north of Sweden. Are you coming?" Shingler arrived in Umea in January 1985. Umea University's new institute of cell and molecular biology offered modern facilities and well-equipped labs. "That was quite amazing compared with what I was used to," she says.

At that time the institute was pure research, associated with but independent of the university, and funded by the state. Today, teaching is important, providing the university with expertise while fostering contact with students for recruitment.

Her teaching load was smaller than it would have been elsewhere, Shingler believes, and has now been reduced to a few lectures a year on the advanced courses, which she very much enjoys. This is possible thanks to special funding awarded by the Swedish Natural Science Research Council in 1995 for six years. This allows her to concentrate on research.

It is easier to get funding in Sweden than anywhere else, she says, particularly for a young researcher, but she feels things are getting tighter. The university pays for the rent of the institute's building and some salaries. The rest is paid by external funding from the research council and private foundations.

When Bagdasarian left Umea, Schingler continued investigating how bacteria degrade toxic phenols in nature. She attributes the progress she and her group are making to the group's small size and bench work. "I like doing bench work," she says. "It's one of the pleasures of research."

In 1990 she was appointed assistant professor of molecular biology. Six years later she was named professor - the first female professor at the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences in eight years.

A return to Britain is unlikely. Her husband also has a research group at the institute. Finding research jobs for both in the same area would not be easy. Replacing the spectacular nature of the Umea area would be even harder.

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